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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Junk Mail 101: Warranty Cards, Surveys and Your Personal Data

There have been warnings in recent years about giving too much information to companies on product registration cards—commonly called warranty cards—and consumer surveys. Still, data marches on, and currently there are over 700 junk mail lists on the market covering these two subjects. In the meantime, the poor consumer muddles through what’s legit and what isn’t and ends up becoming just another record in the junk mailers’ databanks.

Re. the warranty cards, we’ve been told we don’t really have to provide all the extras like age, income, children, etc; only your name, address and the serial and model number of the product. By law, we don’t even need to return it because we are covered automatically. For the surveys, our name, address and hundreds of personal facts about ourselves are necessary to receive cents-off coupons or product samples.

The fact that companies are more interested in our private data than protecting us should raise flags and peak our suspicion, but some of us go ahead and supply the information anyway. Well, don’t. And, I’ll tell you why.

But first, you must wonder how I know that so many of us have given up this detailed info. The answer comes from my 35 years’ experience as a mailing list broker. Two junk mail companies alone, have over 90-million individuals’ records on file. They are BehaviorBank, a division of Experian, one of the top three credit reporting companies. The other is Lifestyle Selector, a part of Equifax, also in the top three providing credit reports.

Links above are provided to their sites, but you won’t get information from Behaviorbank about numbers of names, personal data, etc. Only a telephone number. It seems they are not willing to lay out for the consumer what they know about them. However, the Lifestyle Selector site provides a wealth of facts, most of which is compatible with the Behaviorbank list. Trust me. A visit there will blow your mind over exactly what private information we’ve readily given up.

Each processes the data from product registrations and/or surveys into a neat, humongous database that reflects hundreds of personal identification characteristics about how you live each day. Then, they match this with what they already know about you from their demographics and lifestyle databases. The result is 91 million households whose most intimate details read like an open book.

There is one more large company selling product registration information, by the name of WARRANTY IT! Product Registrants. With some 7.2 million of your names, they also sell your age and income. Even Rodale, publishers of Prevention magazine sells its list of warranty card registrants. Their company representative stated they have access to this purchase info from the buyers of products advertised in the magazine.

Read the article from Privacy Rights Clearinghouse covering the California law, passed in 2004, requiring warranty cards to be “up front” with customers. It also confirms my earlier statements on how all this information ends up for sale in the marketplace. The Electronic Privacy Information Center has an excellent report on the profiling of individuals through capturing all their private information and daily lifestyle habits. You can find a piece specific to warranty cards about halfway down the site. This is a must read.

Aside from these companies ignoring our privacy and opening our life to the public and potential identity thieves, we’ve given them carte blanche to sell the treasures of our personal existence. Do you want your health problems, including the prescription drugs you take, available for open review? How about your dress or pants size and the diet you are on? And then there is the frequent traveler who gambles and is also a smoker. Your political views, reading habits, the music you listen to and your investment practices. It’s all out there, ready to be plucked, and sold for astronomical prices.

There is one person who not only agrees with my concept that we should have 100% control over our names and personal data, but he also has his own solution for the problem. Another must read is Kevin Bedell’s blog, Where do Intellectual Property and Personal Information Intersect? He makes some very good points and, although dated back to 2002, it just shows that we’ve been thinking about the nature of this beast for some time. In my case, over ten years.

Let me pose some particularly relevant questions now:

1. Do you have any idea how much of your private data is warehoused by junk mailers?
2. Do you have the slightest concept of the sizeable number of sources available to these companies where they can whisk away your personal information at the drop of a few bucks?
3. Do you know that the junk mailers are taking in $4 billion each and every year on your name and personal data?
4. Should you be more than slightly suspicious over the way junk mailers manipulate your name and storehouse of confidential knowledge and sell it on the open market?
5. Does it make good sense that you should share in the $4 billion made annually from the sale of your name and private information?

I’ll be covering these and hundreds more questions in future blogs.

Finally, in the whole warranty card and consumer survey fiasco, the data gatherers are obviously nervous over the loss of your personal data, especially exact age, which is considered a key factor in some junk mail offers. It is also a prime tool in the committing of identity theft. But, with their circuitous ingenuity, I can assure you the junk mailers will not give up the search for new sources until every public and private record available has been exhausted.


grantlairdjr said...

Are you suggesting we stopped fill out warranty info card? Or just fill out necessary info on it.

Also, more companies are doing "warranty" thru website and you wouldn't able to get away from all those questions otherwise it won't let you completed it online.

I wonder about rebate, registration, and other forms. Ack!! Sad...


Jack E. Dunning said...

The quick answer to gwlj's comment is yes. If you must send something, only submit minimal info: name/address, date of purchase, serial number.

Re. website registration, the same rule applies.

Re. rebates, my understanding is, all you need is your purchase receipt.

Yes, it is sad but keep in mind, the real ploy by the company is to get you to give up your personal information.

Jack E. Dunning
The Dunning Letter

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